Kal Penn has a pretty unusual resume: He has starred in Harold and Kumar, the most successful series of stoner movies made in the past decade; and has served in the White House as the Obama administration's liaison to youth. Now he's hosting a new show, The Big Brain Theory, on the Discovery Channel.
We've invited him to play a game called "Ahhh! Get It Off Me!" You might be surprised to learn you're not alone in your body — there's a whole colony of bacteria and other critters called a "microbiome" living there. We're going to ask Penn three questions about our little unseen friends.
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PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where people who have done interesting things get asked about things that simply do not interest them. Kal Penn has a really unusual resume. As an actor, he starred in the most successful series of stoner movies made in the last decade, the "Harold and Kumar" films, and he's also served as the Obama White House Liaison to Youth. Now, he's hosting a new show, "The Big Brain Theory." He joins us now. Kal Penn, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!
KAL PENN: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
SAGAL: So you've done all these things, but would I be right in saying most people know you from the "Harold and Kumar" movies?
PENN: That's probably true, yes. When I walk outside of my house, that's probably the largest shouts that I get.
SAGAL: There's a crowd outside going, oh, Kumar. Really?
PENN: Stoners tend to be very happy, so...
PENN: ...you do get a lot of high-fives walking down the street, which is very nice.
SAGAL: So, these are - I mean, basically, these are movies about two guys who really like to smoke marijuana and their quest for marijuana to smoke and to get a hamburger. Is that about right?
PENN: That's pretty much it. It's a very simple concept.
SAGAL: And describe, please, sir, your research.
PENN: My research is funny. There's a scene in the first movie, and it takes place at a hospital in New Jersey where my character performs gunshot surgery. And I kid you not, I had the chance to spend two and a half days at the UCLA Medical Center library researching gunshots, because I knew that despite the stoner element to this, this is a guy who, no matter how much weed he smokes, can apparently somehow still perform gunshot surgery at the drop of a hat.
PENN: So there actually was an odd amount of sort of serious research that went into a role like this.
SAGAL: That's not what I was asking you.
SAGAL: In fact, you know what I was asking about.
PENN: Man, everyone's always disappointed to find out that I don't smoke weed in real life.
SAGAL: Really? I understand that, but that's hard to do. I mean, how can you - you're playing a guy who is stoned a lot. How can you play stoned if you've never been stoned?
PENN: Well, I have a lot of friends who get stoned a lot. I just watch them.
SAGAL: All right. So actually, I want you to break this down. I'm actually kind of interested. What do you do as - I think I can say this - along with your partner in these films, the nation's preeminent stoned actor, how do you replicate the experience of being stoned as an actor? What do you do?
PENN: There were a couple things, actually. You know, you don't drink a lot of water, so your mouth is constantly dry. There's something called a menthol blower that some actors use to cry. I actually liked it because it gives your eyes a really glassy look.
PENN: And it also dries them out a lot.
PENN: So, really, between not drinking water and having your eyes legitimately dry, I would say that's just in terms of physically feeling things that you feel, that's probably, you know, 50 percent of it. And then the other 50 percent is just kind of, really was spending time watching people who are blitzed out of their skulls...
PENN: ...and asking them a ton of questions about what they're feeling right now. But it's probably actually a horrible thing to do to somebody who's high to get them that paranoid. What are you feeling? What are you feeling right now? What are you feeling right now? But it was a fun exercise.
SAGAL: Right. Now, what makes you interesting is you've had a career as an actor. In addition to those films, you were on a season of "House," you've done a lot of different things. You were in "24." And then I guess it was now four years ago, you walked away from it and you went to Washington to join the Obama administration. How in world did that happen?
PENN: It was actually, you know, back in 2007, there was a writer's strike in Hollywood, so none of us could work on anything. And I had read up a lot about then-Senator Obama, and you know, he was down thirty points in the polls in Iowa in the Iowa caucuses.
And so I went to Iowa for three days to volunteer for him and ended up staying for the next two and a half months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, and then ended up working on his youth outreach team and worked on arts outreach quite a bit. When he took office, there was an opening on his outreach team. And so at that point, you know, do you say, no, sorry, sir, I have another stoner movie to make? No.
SAGAL: Well, gee, that's the crazy thing. Was the fact that you played a stoner in these very successful stoner movies, as far as the Obama White House was concerned, a plus or a minus?
PENN: I don't think it was either.
ROY BLOUNT JR.: So did you and the president turn on?
PENN: I never figured out the right time to say, sir, do you...
AMY DICKINSON: Not really.
PENN: Is it between the Osama bin Laden meeting and the Economic Council meeting? When do you...
SAGAL: I don't know.
SAGAL: Well, I mean, really, you were standing there with him, and he looked at you and said, you know, I found your depiction of a stoned guy good but not convincing. Let me give you some pointers, said the president.
SAGAL: Didn't happen?
PENN: No, no, it didn't. No awesome stories like that.
SAGAL: You know, we all know, yes, people leave their jobs in law or whatever else they're doing to come work for an administration they believe in. Fine. But you left a successful career in Hollywood which seems, to the rest of America, nuts. Why would anybody want to do that? Why would - if you're a successful actor, why would you want to do something less influential like work in the actual government?
SAGAL: So what was it like culturally to go from Hollywood and that culture of the entertainment business to, you know, the West Wing or the Executive Office Building, wherever you were?
PENN: It was definitely different. I mean, the thing that kind of, you know, drew me to it in a sense is, look, I love making people laugh. That's one of the reasons I love these ridiculous movies that we get to do. And it was, at the same time, inspirational to see all of these young people and the president and the staff, all of these folks, out in these different communities really pushing for and then achieving a lot that they had asked for.
And so I actually walked away from that experience feeling really fired up and really humbled by this awesome experience that really anything is possible and...
SAGAL: Yeah. Great. Weren't you ever frustrated there was no craft services table in the Executive Office Building? Were you like, they...
PENN: Not only that, but...
SAGAL: ...want me to pay for snacks? What do you mean here?
PENN: Nobody brought my green M&M's, man, I mean.
SAGAL: I know.
PENN: You know.
SAGAL: Kal, I have to ask, you've been in all these movies, these TV shows, the White House. I have to ask, don't you agree that game show host is, in fact, the pinnacle of human achievement?
SAGAL: Thank you.
SAGAL: Well, Kal Penn, we're delighted to have you with us, and we have asked you here to play a game we're calling...
CARL KASELL: Ahhh! Get It Off Me!
SAGAL: You might be surprised to learn that you're not alone in your body. There's a whole colony of bacteria and other critters called a microbiome living on and in you. We're going to ask you three questions about our little friends. Get two right, you'll win a prize for one of our listeners. Carl, who is Kal Penn playing for?
KASELL: Kal is playing for Kelly Cronley of Somerville, Massachusetts.
SAGAL: You ready to play? Here...
PENN: I am. And I have a feeling that this is going to result in me buying one of those bubbles that I never want to leave.
SAGAL: It could be.
SAGAL: Here's your first question, the colony of organisms on and inside you, your body, help you out in many ways, but they hurt us all in one specific way. What is it? A, they make us weigh three pounds more than we really do; B, they cause us to repulse people who have different kinds of bacteria no matter how attractive we might find them; or C, they give us wedgies.
PENN: Life experience tells me that it's B, but it's probably really A, so I'm going to go with A.
SAGAL: It is, in fact, A.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Next time you weigh yourself, subtract three pounds from your weight because that's just all your bacteria.
SAGAL: That's three pounds.
SAGAL: ...we have, all of us, about.
BLOUNT: That's a lot of bacteria.
SAGAL: All right. Next question, some scientists wanted to see if people could transfer their organisms on them to another person by brushing up against them. So they went and scientifically studied what? A, the crowds at Lollapalooza; B, participants in a roller derby; or C, creepy guys in elevators?
PENN: B, roller derby.
SAGAL: You're right!
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Very good.
PENN: All right.
SAGAL: They went, they studied the biome, biota on the arms of roller derby participants, had them do the roller derby where they rub up against each other, tested them again. It turns out they sort of swapped critters as they rubbed and rubbed.
SAGAL: Cooties, that's the technical term is cooties.
SAGAL: You're doing very well, Kal. There you are. All right. Last question, go for perfect. There are lots of different kinds of creatures living inside us, but very few people get the honor of having one of these named after them. An intestinal parasite found only in the lesser guitar fish was named after whom: A, Lesser guitar legend, Eddie Van Halen.
SAGAL: He's a good guitar player, I'm sorry for that. B, Lindsay Lohan...
SAGAL: ...or C, famed public radio producer, Doug Berman?
PENN: Ooh, oh, man. I'm really hoping it's B, but I'm going to go with C.
SAGAL: You're going to go with C, Doug Berman?
PENN: Yes, yeah.
SAGAL: You would be right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Doug Berman, the creator of Car Talk and this very show, was honored to have the parasite Echinobothrium dougbermani.
SAGAL: Named for him in honor of his recent 70th birthday.
SAGAL: Isn't that cool?
PENN: That is so cool.
PENN: Yeah. And also, by the way, now talk show host is no longer the pinnacle of a career.
SAGAL: There you are.
SAGAL: You can go on to be an actual parasite. Carl, how did...
SAGAL: How did Kal Penn do in our show?
KASELL: Kal had three correct answers, Peter, so he wins for Kelly Cronley. Congratulations.
SAGAL: Well done.
SAGAL: Congratulations. Kal Penn is the host of the new Discovery Channel series, "The Big Brain Theory." Kal Penn, thank you so much for joining us today. Great to see you.
PENN: Thank you so much.
SAGAL: Thank you.
PENN: Good to talk to you. Thanks for having me on.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES SONG "LET'S GO GET STONED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.